SAUDI ARABIA: Push for a smoke-free Hajj pilgrimage
It is not only in the bars of New York or bistros of Paris where smokers are being pushed to the sidelines and asked to step outside to light that cigarette. Now, Saudi Arabia's health ministry is launching a public campaign to make the holy cities of Mecca and Medina smoke-free during this year’s pilgrimage season.
The move is a part of a larger health drive for the pilgrimage season that has been spearheaded by the ministry to create a healthier environment for pilgrims and prevent a swine flu breakout among them. Over 2 million people from around the world travel to the two holy cities each year to perform the pilgrimage.
Speaking to the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, Majed Al-Munif of the health ministry’s Tobacco Control Program said that brochures advertising the anti-smoking campaign are being handed out to arriving pilgrims.
“Under the ministry’s Tobacco Control Program, we have printed around 1.5 million leaflets in different languages for distribution among pilgrims — both smokers and nonsmokers,” he said.
The Middle East, home to smoke-filled teahouses, is now slowly jumping on the smoke-free bandwagon. Beirut, for example, recently organized a smoke-free night on its bar-crowded Gemmayze strip, and Turkey banned smoking in public places earlier this year.
To speed up the ministry's goal of making Mecca and Medina free of cigarette smoke, tobacco sales have apparently been banned within a three-mile radius of the two cities and the areas have been declared tobacco-free.
The campaign doesn't end there.
Billboards carrying anti-smoking messages have been erected across Mecca and Medina, and pilgrims are being given fliers advertising special clinics that help smokers to quit. Buses transporting pilgrims between sites carry posters about the anti-smoking drive.
Al-Munif said he believes that the Hajj pilgrimage serves as an excellent opportunity for smoking pilgrims to rid themselves of their bad habit.
The health ministry has even come up with a slogan that it hopes will serve as an inspiration for pilgrims to put out that cigarette: “Make Arafat Day, a Quit-Smoking Day," in reference to climactic ninth day of the Hajj.
The bid to make the holy cites of Mecca and Medina smoke-free is not a totally new initiative. Saudi’s King Abdullah declared them smoke-free in 2002, and the health ministry has since the struggled to implement the ruling.
One factor that has caused difficulties in the implementation of the king’s decision is the language barrier with pilgrims from around the world pouring into Saudi Arabia each year for the Hajj.
Apart from making this year’s Hajj smoke-free, Saudi authorities are also working hard to make it flu-free. About 7,000 people in the country have so far become infected with swine flu, and the virus is said to have caused 62 deaths.
With the Hajj only a few weeks away, the health ministry has begun to vaccinate local pilgrims and workers in Mecca and Medina, and surveillance is being set up in the cities to track the spread of the virus.
Arriving pilgrims have also been instructed to do their part to protect themselves from contracting the flu, including the use of unscented hand sanitizers.
Scented disinfectants are deemed a violation of Ihram, the special religious codes for the Hajj pilgrimage, according to some Saudi religious scholars.
“Pilgrims should make sure the sanitizers and disinfectants they use during Hajj are scentless so as not to commit any violation that might harm their pilgrimage,” said Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad Al-Mazroua, a judge at the Court of Cassation in Mecca.
“There are plenty of scentless sanitizers which pilgrims can safely use,” he added.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: In one of the final stages of the Hajj, pilgrims hurl stones at largest of the three stone walls that represent Satan. The "stoning the devil" ritual symbolizes the pilgrims warding off temptation. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times